Monday in Holy Week: Cleansing the Temple

I am pulling this one from the archives to celebrate Monday in Holy Week today. This was first posted on March 30, 2015. So much has changed in the world and the Church since Holy Week five years ago. The Spring of 2015 seems like a downright idyllic time now, just five years later. But the example Jesus set in cleansing the temple of the money changers remains as powerful today as then. In fact it is ever more powerful today.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

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Jesus likely knew that he was sealing His fate when he “cleansed” the temple by casting out the money changers after his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In the Gospel of Mark, this cleansing of the temple occurs on the Monday of Holy Week (Mark 11:15-19).

Jesus explained this seemingly rash action: “Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17). Jews traveling to Jerusalem from the far corners of the known world to make sacrifices in the temple had to exchange their local money (which often contained impermissible graven images) for temple currency before they could buy appropriate birds or animals for the sacrifice. The entrenched wealth of the ruling elites depended on being able to profit off of these exchange transactions, often offering dishonest or outright abusive rates of exchange to those least able to afford it, having spent what money they had making the long journey to the temple. In paraphrasing Isaiah 56:6-7 while casting these corrupt money changers out of the temple courtyards, Jesus also expressed disapproval of such treatment of converted Gentiles making the trip to offer prayer and sacrifice at the temple. But striking against this practice of grinding the face of the poor through the monopoly on sacrificial animals and money exchange for temple currency as the source of the priestly elite’s wealth was going a step too far for them to endure. So when “the scribes and chief priests heard it,” they “sought how they might destroy him” (Mark 11:18).

Cleansing the temple was a necessary precursor for what was to come — His final sacrifice and universal expiation. The corruption of the ruling elite had long defiled the faith and the temple. The Book of Mormon outlines the downfall of multiple civilizations, identifying such corruption of the priestly elite, or “priestcrafts,” as a key element in such declines. Consistent with His cleansing of the temple, the Lord “commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29).

Rather than setting ourselves up “for a light unto the world” we must look to the Lord as our light and the light of the world. We must join the Psalmist in praise, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9, NRSV). We learn that He is “a light to the nations,/ to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7, NRSV).

Jesus was not only intent on ensuring that the temple could still “be called of all nations the house of prayer” (Mark 11:17), but he was also foreordained to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1, NRSV). Indeed, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching” (Isaiah 42:4, NRSV). For this promise, we must thank Him, and for His “steadfast love” which “extends to the heavens” (Psalm 36:5): “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD” (Psalm 36:6). We know that some who heard and saw what He did on that Monday of Holy Week long ago recognized in him the bringer of light and justice for Jew and Gentile, the cleanser of the temple as the house of prayer. Others might have expected this cleansing of the temple from Israel’s Great High Priest (Hebrews 9:11) but sadly didn’t recognize it in Him.

This final provocation combined with teachings directly challenging the ruling elite’s priestly authority on the basis of their corruption (see the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Mark 12:1-12, KJV) made the question of sacrificial animals irrelevant, given the resolve taken from that time forward to kill Him. As Israel’s Great High Priest, Jesus, the Messiah, “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). This brings us to the core of the Christian message:

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,

14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14, NRSV.)

As the Great High Priest, the head of this order of “high priesthood . . . which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things” (Alma 13:7), Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15, NRSV). This “New Covenant” is the Gospel of faith and repentance made possible by Christ’s Atonement by which all can be “sanctified, and their garments . . . washed white through the blood of the Lamb” (Alma 13:11). Having thus had our “garments made white, being pure and spotless before God,” we choose to “bring forth fruit meet for repentance” in our own lives (Alma 13:13) because we can “not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (Alma 13:12). Such humility and faith is possible because Christ led the way.

Jesus Christ also therefore becomes our primary exemplar in exercising this high priesthood. Those “ordained after this manner . . . become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth” (Alma 13:9). The key qualification for this “high priesthood,” to which “there were many who were ordained and became high priests of God,” is “choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish” (Alma 13:10). Those “called after this holy order” (Alma 13:11) — and there are “many, exceedingly great many” — are “made pure and enter into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:12).

Christ’s message to the corrupt priestly class of His day, and to those holding office in the priesthood throughout the ages, including and especially today, is “that ye should humble yourselves before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, that ye may also enter into that rest” (Alma 13:13). We would do well to look to Melchizedek rather than the high priests of Jesus’ day for an example of how to avoid priestcrafts in the exercise of priesthood office by pointing to Christ as the light of the world and preaching for the sole purpose of seeking the welfare of Zion:

17 Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;

18 But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.

19 Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention. (Alma 13:17-19.)

Melchizedek understood that his role in exercising this priesthood office was to help people “look forward on the Son of God” so that “they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord” (Alma 13:16). In doing so he avoided the priestcraft that so often contributes to societal downfall; instead, he righteously influenced his people to repent such that he “did establish peace in the land in his days.” His society became Zion and his people entered into the rest of the Lord.

May this ever be our focus in exercising priesthood office, or in preaching and living the Gospel — to set up Christ as the light of the world (and not ourselves) and persuade people to repent, being made pure and spotless before God by the blood of the Lamb and obtaining a remission of their sins so that they can enter into the rest of the Lord.

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Handel Messiah, Chorus: And He shall purify the sons of Levi, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (see Eric Huntsman’s musings on this song’s applicability today)




Mormon Lectionary Project

Monday in Holy Week

Isaiah 42:1-9 (KJV), Psalm 36:5-11 (KJV), Hebrews 11:9-15 (NRSV), Mark 11:15-19 (KJV), 2 Nephi 26:29, Alma 13:7-19

The Collect: Heavenly Father, who sent Thy Son as Thy chosen servant to bring justice to the nations, grant that we may both recognize and preach Thy Son, the Great High Priest, as the light of the world and purifier of the faith so that we may faithfully seek Thy righteousness in fruits meet for repentance, thus finding life and peace and an eternal inheritance in the New Covenant, following the example of Melchizedek in humbling ourselves so that we may exercise mighty faith in Jesus Christ, Thy Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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